Most of these top festivals are free of charge, but some events require buying tickets. Many Italian festivals are based on historical events and can include processions with people dressed in period costume, contests between neighborhoods of the town, flag-throwers, food, and fireworks. Summer is the height of festival season--as you travel in Italy, look for posters advertising a festa or sagra.
Venice has one of the top carnival festivals in the world, but Carnevale is celebrated in many Italian towns. Viareggio, on the coast of Tuscany, is known for its elaborate floats, and parades are held on several weekends. Carnevale events often occur prior to the actual Carnival date, too. Carnevale usually falls in February.
The Palio of Siena is one of Italy's most famous Palio competitions. Siena's Palio is a horse race run in the unusual fan-shaped piazza, Il Campo. Siena's 17 contrade, or neighborhoods, compete to win the Palio. The horse race takes place in both July and August with other events taking place prior to the races.
L'ardia Di San Costantino is one of the biggest festivals in Sardinia. Taking place in July, this exciting horse race commemorates Constantine's victory at the Mulvian Bridge in 312. It's really more than a race, and it has an interesting spiritual twist. Besides watching the races, the large array of food stands makes it a great festival for eating.
The Madonna Bruna festival, on July 2 in Matera, is one of the most interesting processions we've ever seen. The procession has a surprise ending, and, late at night before heading to your cave hotel, there's a spectacular fireworks display over the sassi of Matera. It's a really beautiful sight.
Ascoli Piceno holds a medieval jousting tournament, la Quintana, on the first Sunday in August. A highlight of the festival is the procession prior to the tournament with people dressed in medieval costume. Following the tournament, there's a procession celebrating the winner and festivities that last late into the night. Ascoli Piceno is in central Italy's Marche region.
Going to a music festival or outdoor concert during summer can be a highlight of a trip to Italy. You'll find many outdoor concerts in squares and public places throughout Italy.
The Regatta of the Ancient Maritime Republics is a historic boat race in boats called gozzi, each rowed by a team of eight rowers from one of the four maritime republics: Amalfi, Genoa, Pisa, and Venice. Before the regatta, there's a colorful procession with participants from each republic dressed in traditional medieval costume. The festival location rotates each year.
San Biagio Day might not be one of Italy's biggest festivals, but it's celebrated several places in Italy. It gives you an idea of what a typical festival looks like in southern Italy. Avetrana is on the Salento Peninsula of Puglia, the heel of Italy's boot.
The disfida is an archery contest amongst the neighborhoods of Fivizzano in the Lunigiana of northern Tuscany, held in July. Although it's not a top festival, it's a typical festival with a medieval procession, flag throwers, and fireworks.
Archery Contests are held in other towns as well. One of the most famous is in Montalcino, Tuscany.